Monday, September 24, 2007


I paid for my college education through a leadership scholarship. This scholarship had a few requirements, like keeping a certain GPA, doing research on campus, and taking two semesters worth of a 'leadership seminar', which consisted of watching videos of Stephen Coveys ' Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.'

After two semesters of that, everyone in class had learned an important lesson: Anyone who uses the phrase "Paradigm Shift" is full of horse crap.

Thanks to Secret Agent Man, this horse crap was brought to my attention again.

Coincidently, Mike has explained why SAM was so excited about Kuhn:
One thing I've noticed about some of the 'legit' questioners is that there's often an air of breathless excitement because they have 'discovered' a 'new theory' that challenges 'existing dogma', or some such thing. I blame some of this on Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
Ooooooh I get it now. Ive encountered this before with an Islamic Creationist. I had no idea what this argument was called, but I called it "The Magic Maybe Machine" defense. It goes like this:
100 years ago, 'viruses' were impossible! But now that we have microscopes and all this new technology not available 100 years ago, we know viruses are real!
100 years ago, planets around other starts was impossible! But now we have telescopes and all this new technology not available 100 years ago, we know these other planets exist!
How do YOU know in 100 years we wont invent some technology that can detect a designer! Creationists have good ideas, theyre just waiting for the right paradigm!
BLECH! Yes, one day we might invent a Magic Maybe Machine that can detect a 'Designer.' But that has absolutely no impact on the validity of Creationists claims today, and the fact Creationist Claims contradict todays 'paradigm.' You dont get to shift paradigms without evidence. You dont get to throw on the cloak of Galileo (EVERYONE THOUGHT HE WAS WROOOOONG!) unless you have the evidence. If you require a Magic Maybe Machine to collect this evidence, I think youre jumping the gun just a *little* bit.


xander said...

If you haven't actually read Kuhn's work, it might be worth your while. While The Structure of Scientific Revolution is much abused, it does make some important points. The problem is the way in which cracks and quacks assert that they presenting new paradigms, and are being repressed by the established community. To quote Dawkins, "They laughed at Einstein, they laughed at the Wright Brothers — but they also laughed at Bozo the Clown."

Revolutionary ideas, such as Relativity or Plate Tectonics take time to be accepted by the scientific community, and are generally ardently fought against by proponents of the previous ideas (Newtonian Physics, for instance). The fact is that the scientific community can be dogmatic, but that doesn't mean that it is wrong, which is what the quacks and cranks assert.


Tyler DiPietro said...

xander, it was actually Martin Gardner who made the "Bozo the Clown" clip.

I personally prefer Michael Shermer's variant: "They laughed at the Wright brothers, but they also laughed at the Marx brothers."

Dan said...

I was more excited by this prospect when I thought it was a reference to Bakunin, the Marxist/anarchist, in the classic atheism = communism smear.

Now it's just the paradigm thing? I took philosophy of science and we had a more recent (and I assume complete, up to date, and hard to abuse) book on the same topic.

So sad. :(

Tyler DiPietro said...

Another nitpick: Bakunin technically wasn't a Marxist, as he rejected much of the state-socialist program (e.g., using a political party to establish a "dictatorship of the proletariat", which he prophetically claimed would lead to a "red bureaucracy"). He and Marx were historic political rivals.

Okay, I'm done.


Anonymous said...

I had no idea what this argument was called, but I called it "The Magic Maybe Machine" defense.

That's a good name. I usually call it the "Selling the hide before you've shot the bear" argument. Medical quacks are very fond of it too.

TomS said...

I'm not very knowledgeable about the popularity of spiritualism and such in the late 19th and early 20th century, but I have heard that one of the explanations for it was the discovery of such amazing things as the electromagnetic spectrum and radioactivity. People were saying, so the story goes, "who knows what other things are there to be discovered - maybe there is a reality to telepathy and spirit communication". If so, is this an early version of the "Magic Maybe Machine"?

Dan said...

He was responsible for several important translations/popularizations of Marxist propaganda, therefore he was a Marxist in at least some capacity. That he had later disputes with Marx doesn't make him a non-Marxist. For one, Marx was arguably not even a Marxist himself, and secondly a dispute with Marxists in the political sense (which Bakunin did, also, have) does not make someone not a Marxist, insofar as Marxism is a set of ideas which one can dispute and have disagreements within without fully rejecting, separate from Marxism as a political party and/or force. If it did, there might be very few actual Marxists in the intellectual sense, even among the wide swath of people classified as Marxists from Marx to the present day.

Bring it on, pedant!

windy said...

xander, it was actually Martin Gardner who made the "Bozo the Clown" clip.

I thought it was Sagan.

Blake Stacey said...

I find it truly exasperating that so many people act as if the last word on how science progresses was written decades ago. What, has nobody said anything of interest since Kuhn?

Incidentally, Nature has an editorial policy forbidding the use of the word paradigm.

Skeptico said...

This approach is also known as The appeal to “science doesn’t know everything”

Tyler DiPietro said...

I have been out pedanted! Oh noes!!!1one

Torbjörn Larsson said...

I'll pitch in with Blake here. Admittedly I have never read Kuhn, but every time someone wants to exemplify a paradigm shift it is with a new theory which must be considered business as usual. Theories have a certain life cycle, but so what?

Maybe if we had to abandon old theories for a new that would be a discernible break with the old. But the last time we abandoned a theory would be phlogiston I believe, and I'm not sure it was universally accepted, and I don't think that there was an alternative but simply a realization that it went against observations.

So yes, let us abandon the use of the word. Not that it would mean, um, a paradigm shift. :-P

xander said...

tyler dipietro and windy: You are correct, it was Sagan, not Dawkins. My bad.

blake stacey: I think that much of the reason that people don't get beyond Kuhn is that so many wackos pick up on him, and don't bother to go beyond. Thus, the rest of us are forced to deal with misinterpretations of Kuhn, but not later stuff.

That being said, it is important to understand Kuhn if you are going to go beyond Kuhn, much as it is important for an anthropologist to understand Marx, Freud, and Morgan to get to more modern theory.

torbjörn larsson: How can you discard Kuhn if you have not even read him?


Dan said...


Torbjörn Larsson said...

How can you discard Kuhn if you have not even read him?

Um, by experience? :-P

But I think I laid out my argument, that when people wants to demonstrate "paradigm shift" it has been by discussing a (new) theory. So I'm not exactly discarding Kuhn, I'm discarding a more or less faithfully discussed concept.

Mike Z said...

Kuhn's work had good points (like showing that Popper's ideas were too simplistic; that scientists generally work under a theory they assume to be roughly correct; etc). But he also seemed to argue that paradigm shifts were driven, in large part, by social / political factors. ID proponents pick up on that and talk about how their ideas are being suppressed for social / political reasons. Interestingly, since this aspect of Kuhn also gave big ammunition to the social constructivists and postmodernists, we sometimes see team-ups btwn left wing, po-mo academics and right wing science deniers. I believe there was an "expert" witness for the defense in the Dover trial that pushed that social constructivist line (which obviously works strongly againt any religious conservative position). Talk about strange bedfellows....

Israel Barrantes said...

no wonder it's horse crap since this idea comes from the same kind of people that write self- help or marketing books.

PS. yes, i'm back, and now broadcasting from Central Europe